LAS VEGAS — They wandered through the slot-machine maze of McCarran International Airport, through the haze of stale cigar smoke and banners advertising residencies by Calvin Harris and Criss Angel, and into the quiet, cool morning of a city that hadn’t yet shaken off sleep.
It was the earliest hours of the first day of October, and these teenagers from every nook of the country were descending on Las Vegas. But they weren’t going to the strip, or even to nap in their hotel. In a city that represents the pinnacle of uniquely American hedonism, a band of student organizers from March for Our Lives — the gun-reform advocacy organization born out of the country’s deadliest high school shooting — were headed directly to an empty, gray event venue a half-mile from the airport, to help pull off a presidential candidate forum dedicated solely to the issue of gun violence.
It was, coincidentally, the two-year anniversary of the Las Vegas mass shooting, in which a 64-year-old man dragged 10 rifles into his 32nd-floor Mandalay Bay hotel room and opened fire from the window on a crowd of 22,000, killing 58 and injuring close to 500. Across the strip, between ads for Cirque du Soleil and a farm-to-table restaurant, electronic billboards flashed signs of remembrance: “BRAVER. CLOSER. PROUDER. STRONGER. #VEGASSTRONGER.” Trump Tower glinted like a lighter in the distance.
The forum was about 24 hours away. The event space was mostly empty. The sound of clanging metal rang through the courtyard as a construction crew assembled white security tents outside. In a ballroom inside, clusters of March organizers, still not old enough to legally drink, slouched over round tables covered in white linens, tapping through their phones and chatting quietly, like reluctant college kids killing time at the library.
Lauren Hogg, the 16-year-old co-founder of March, picked at the straw in an empty Starbucks cup full of ice, hugging her white cable-knit sweater closer to her chest. She was 14 when, on Valentine’s Day in 2018, a 19-year-old man gunned down 17 students at her high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, in the South Florida suburb of Parkland. Within days, a group of Hogg’s friends launched the activist group Never Again MSD; a month after that, they organized a nationwide protest of gun violence that galvanized nearly 2 million people.
In the span of mere weeks, Hogg and a handful of her classmates became some of the country’s most well-known advocates for gun reform, making it a key electoral issue for Democrats running for office nationally. Now, here they were, watching the venue be converted into a made-for-MSNBC event.
“I look back at photos right after the shooting, like from speeches I gave. And I don't recognize myself,” Hogg said, brown eyes sharp like flint.
“We're better now, today, than we were in the beginning. Because I think people forget that. We were not doing well."
Flanking her in the ballroom was 19-year-old Eve Levenson, who’s from Los Angeles and helped organize a number of March’s protests there last year. She joined March full-time as its federal affairs manager this summer, shortly before starting her sophomore year at George Washington University in Washington, D.C, where she piles evening classes onto a full day of meetings on Capitol Hill.
“I called my parents last spring, and basically was like, 'Is it bad to register as a lobbyist?'” Levenson said with a booming laugh inside the venue’s war room, where event organizers spent the morning working.
“It's like, obviously, I've never planned a presidential forum before,” Levenson said. She was nine years old during the last true open primary for Democrats, in 2007. “This was a nice change, though, because the adults I was working with also had not planned a presidential forum. So for once, I was like, okay, it's not that I don't know what's supposed to happen next because I'm young. It's because none of us know.”
Hogg sat beside her, spinning in an office chair. Her junior year was only two weeks old, but already she’d missed four days, first for testifying in favor of an assault-weapons ban on Capitol Hill, and now for this.
“It's almost as if I went from, like, childhood to — kind of, adulthood, in regards to having to deal with things that some adults have to deal with, or working in some spaces that are majority adults,” Hogg said. “I've found myself trying to have to learn how to be a teenager, and especially in spaces where not everyone is traumatized.”
She throws around the word “trauma” like it weighs nothing at all, and still finds it hard to relate to people who haven’t experienced it.
“Trying to interact with teenagers in a non-business, non-political way, is something that is very difficult,” she said. “But recently, the biggest thing for me is, like, realizing that I need to learn how to be a teenager. And it's hard. It's difficult, you know? It's like, what do you talk about?”
Two audio-visual techs walked in. They asked if they could use the room to check its equipment. We scooped up our bags and cleared out, shuffling through the maze of sterile white offices, looking for a place to sit that wasn’t in the middle of being made over. We passed by what would, the next day, become the room where forum attendees could sit to decompress from the talk of gun violence and murder, and we passed by the the glamour room, with its silvery mirrors and flattering lighting, where candidates would wait before going onstage.
“I find myself kind of disassociating a lot when I'm not with people who are in March for Our Lives or weren't in a shooting,” Hogg said, once we found an unoccupied room. The faint untz-untz of electronic Muzak echoed through the venue. “My brain kind of just doesn't know how to act in a lot of circumstances with kids, just like trying to have fun and being adolescents.”
“It's like, when you're like a fish — it's like you're a fish in water,” she continued. “You don't realize that you're in water.”
Levenson, sitting directly in front of Hogg and listening intently, interjected. “I'm sure that analogy came from the personal experience of being a fish,” she said. They looked at each other for a beat and broke into peals of laughter.
The next morning, the makeover was complete, a small village erected overnight. Hordes of people spilled into the venue, navigating around circular tables to grab fruit and coffee from a breakfast bar. Reporters in neon green “PRESS” badges darted in and out of their designated room, staking out spots along the entryway to the ballroom, where the students from March could hang out undisturbed.
A healthy chunk of D.C.’s Democratic political machine had made the trip. Every top-polling candidate running for president and their handlers were there, with the exception of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’d suffered a heart attack the night before. So were several members of Congress, Nevada’s governor, 100 or so members of the press, and hundreds of political activists.
And though it was the team from Giffords, the gun-reform group founded by former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, that conceived of the forum and did the bulk of the planning, the Parkland students were, by all appearances, the face of the event.
By 10 a.m., Giffords herself was onstage with David Hogg, Lauren’s older brother and the student who has absorbed the bulk of the flashbulbs, to introduce the forum. His lanky frame cut through the starkly lit, deep blue of the stage.
“When the American culture starts to value children and the future of our country more than guns, politicians get afraid, and that’s when things change,” he said in a brief speech. Giffords and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) flanked him.
After a spoke, Hogg stood on stage for several long beats, struggling, and failing, to take a good selfie with Giffords and Murphy. “You’d think David Hogg would be better at selfies than he is!” crowed the moderator, MSNBC host Craig Melvin, to laughter from the crowd, as Hogg finally slunk offstage.
It was the selfie that launched a dozen selfies. Tucked into a corner of the venue’s lobby was a backdrop branded with logos from Giffords and March for Our Lives, and candidates passed through it, alongside students from March, like tourists posing with carnival cut-outs.
A steady stream of them populated the organization’s Twitter feed throughout the day: There’s Kamala Harris playing air guitar. There’s Amy Klobuchar, hearing a very good secret. There’s Andrew Yang, sorority-squatting.
And it was clear, from the way the candidates spoke about them, who they were really there to appease.
“You did such a good job,” Joe Biden said, leaning into the crowd, pointing to the Parkland students sitting in the first rows.
When Emma Gonzalez, a Parkland graduate who joined some of her classmates on the cover of TIME last year, asked former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) how he would implement certain elements of his gun reform agenda — a plan that March for Our Lives itself wrote — he turned the focus back to them.
“I’d call you,” O’Rourke said, to thunderous applause.
The Parkland students have never had trouble receiving that kind of attention. As quickly as they spun their pain into political action, the country latched onto their tragedy and yanked them, swiftly, into celebrity: a national speaking tour, TV appearances, the cover of TIME.
Then, the backlash. Right-wing media personalities pushed a number of conspiracy theories about Parkland survivors, including David Hogg, fabricating allegations that he was never a Stoneman Douglas student, and that he was a crisis actor hired by Democrats to harm the NRA. SWAT teams had to protect his house.
Close to two years after the shooting, they are expert in the demands made of them, even as March has bloomed into an organization that has very little to do with the specific experience of the students from Stoneman Douglas.
But when politicians talk about gun reform, they tend to flatten it into their likeness.
“How in the world could you say that to March for Our Lives?” Beto O’Rourke asked, launching an attack against Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Later, in a small press gaggle at the venue’s press room, O’Rourke tore into South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg had just spoken forcefully against a mandatory buy-back program for assault weapons, which March has endorsed, calling it “a shiny object” that distracts Democrats from pursuing more widely popular gun control measures, like universal background checks and federal red flag laws.
“How in the world could you say that to March for Our Lives?” asked O’Rourke, who opposed mandatory buy-backs until recently. A pair of student organizers in their blue T-shirts looked on. “I was really offended by those comments.” Digging in his heels, O’Rourke then said Buttigieg “represents a politics driven by poll testing and focus group driving, and listening to consultants before they arrive at a decision.”
O’Rourke filed out of the room, and the three dozen reporters and March students followed. Nevada Assemblywoman Sandra Jauregui took O’Rourke’s place in front of the few cameras remaining. A survivor herself of the Route 91 Harvest shooting, Jauregui subsequently wrote and passed a bill banning the sale of bump stocks in the state.
She began to talk about the night of the shooting — teary-eyed, beseeching, voice unsteady — while rows of reporters sat facing the opposite direction, plugging away at their computers, eating sandwiches. A member of Jauregui’s team wove through their tables to let them know she was speaking just behind them.
Delaney Tarr was gesticulating to nobody, fingers glittering with rings, an iPhone and small notebook splayed out before her. Tarr — cofounder of March for Our Lives, 19-year-old college student, astrology enthusiast — was doing press, talking local radio hosts through the group’s policy agenda for gun reform.
This was the Parkland students’ afternoon: darting in and out of the press room to watch and film candidates’ brief press gaggles, holding court with reporters, and occasionally stopping to greet an old friend.
In those interviews, they were candid and guileless. March’s spokesperson waited by Tarr’s side as she wrapped her radio spot. When it ended, he was quick to ask her how it went. They’ve had problems with antagonistic, conservative media outlets.
“Verrry left,” Tarr drawled. “They asked me what I’d say to Mitch McConnell. What I answered was, ‘well, what I’d say to any legislator is…’”
It was my turn. Tarr and I wandered into the lobby to talk, but after a few minutes were interrupted by a March staffer. Cory Booker wanted a selfie.
I waited for her return, the blue photo backdrop sitting briefly empty across the room. Outside, through the glass walls of the lobby, I saw David Hogg patiently nodding in front of a camera as a journalist chatted him up.
And then, like magic, Tarr was back, jogging to our table with a shake of her head and frazzled smile.
“We talked about veganism,” she said. “Totally unprompted.”
An airpod fell from her hand and scuttled across the floor. She touched her bicep, where the outline of a nude woman, with a sheet of black hair, curled in the fetal position. From the crown of the woman’s head, above ground, sprouts a tuft of green leaves.
“He looked at my tattoo and he’s like, ‘What’s that?’” she laughed, impersonating Booker. “‘Oh, I thought that was a vegan thing.’”
Are you vegan? I asked her.
The strangeness of this — a sitting member of Congress lightly asking about her body art and eating habits, at a forum for presidential candidates she helped plan and promote — seemed to barely register.
Tarr acknowledges that the original Never Again MSD group is aware of their relative privilege — that they were afforded a spotlight to discuss their grief, while other victims of gun violence, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and among people of color, go undiscussed. It’s a guilt that, she said, she is still learning to process. And it is “damaging to the cause,” she said, to act as if the Parkland students are operating in a vacuum.
“That celebrity aspect is one that I think can be a bit damaging, because we are activists first and foremost, born out of a trauma and a tragedy,” Tarr said. “This is not about the fame. This is not about cameras. We don't live these glamorous, glitzy lives — this is not what it seems to be perceived as.”
Like the rest of the students, Tarr is still figuring out how to reconcile the otherworldliness of of her activism with her youth. But the activism itself comes naturally now. She calls it so comfortable that it’s like pulling on a cozy sweater.
“I was like, I'm going to be a college student, and I'm going to have that experience. I'm going to do this and nobody can stop me.”
Still, she’s worked hard to build herself a new home at the University of Georgia, where she’s a sophomore majoring in journalism and minoring in women’s studies. She’s joined a dizzying number of clubs — debate, literary magazine, film, and poetry among them — where, she said, she has “a captive audience” for her writing. (Her roughly 180,000 Twitter followers don’t hurt.)
But she finds other ways to be good to herself. She is learning how to say “no.” She is very serious about her bedtime routine. She goes to football games. She made friends who are very different from her, friends who, for example, skin deer.
“I think part of this was reclaiming what I thought had been stolen from me,” she said about enrolling at UGA. “I was like, I'm going to be a college student, and I'm going to have that experience. I'm going to do this and nobody can stop me.”
Former housing secretary Julian Castro was speaking a few yards away. Tarr went on.
“I, even still now, more than a year out, I'm reconciling with the fact that after the shooting, I put my grief in a box and I pushed it aside,” she said. “We're better now, today, than we were in the beginning. Because I think people forget that. We were not doing well, emotionally, in the beginning. We had a lot going on.”
She continued: “I would only open up that can of worms of pain and grief and trauma when I was doing these interviews, because I think a lot of us did have to push our emotions and our pain aside because we felt that we needed to do it for the cause.”
The original founders of Never Again MSD don’t see each other as much as they used to. But they do have reunions periodically, in part to see each other and in part to meet the newer March organizers, who are sprawled across dozens of chapters around the country.
Coming together like this—it helps.
“It's like that whole Hero's Journey,” Tarr said, recalling the classic storytelling arc that sees its protagonist called to adventure by an unforeseen force before facing adversity, and, eventually, rebirth.
“You've learned something new, so you come back with a different perspective and a different outlook. And feel the fire again,” she said. “It's always nice to feel that fire again. Because it's never the same unless you're at these events with these people. And then you get passionate, you want to roar, you want to shout, and scream, and I love it. I love it.”
The afternoon wore on, and they passed each other like orbiting planets: all on fixed paths, rarely in alignment. They tagged each other in for different meetings, gave each other directions about what to do, and when. “Where do you need me to be?” is a mantra I heard early and often.
After the last speaker, California Sen. Kamala Harris, finished, I saw Tarr wandering alone through an emptying lobby. Around her, people spilled out of the auditorium, out of the bathrooms, back out of the venue through the now-abandoned security checkpoints.
She was headed to the only room off-limits to the press, but a reporter caught her. He asked what she made of the day. She thought it went well, she said, but didn’t really get to watch the candidates speak. She was too busy doing interviews.
She and her former classmates would not have time for a prolonged goodbye. All of them would leave at different times that night — flights back to D.C., to Florida, to Massachusetts. Hers was a red-eye back to Georgia, where she would land with just enough time to get a bus back to Athens and make her morning classes.
Top: March for Our Lives Co-Founder Emma Gonzalez (R) attends the 2020 Gun Safety Forum on October 2, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) Above: Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang poses for photos with attendees after speaking during the forum. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)